Students from the University of Illinois at Chicago protested a Turning Point USA college event Thursday evening at the UIC Forum featuring far-right speakers Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens.
The pair spoke as part of the conservative organization’s spring 2023 college tour.
Andrea Daviera, a graduate student at UIC in the community psychology program, said she was taking part in the protest with about 100 other students because Kirk and Owens are “simply known for inciting and saying really bigoted things.”
UIC Against Hatred, a collective of separate cultural and political student groups that came together after learning about Kirk and Owens’ appearance, said the rally aims to create a space for students to express their concerns regarding the university granting access to an organization known for targeting minority groups.
“Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens’ past use of hate speech and discriminatory language against marginalized groups indicates that these figures are in search of furthering divisions and ‘triggering’ people rather than engaging in meaningful discussion,” said a member of UIC Against Hatred who asked to remain anonymous. “UIC Against Hatred understands that freedom of speech and civil discussion is an important value to our institution and in this country. However, we believe that discussion and speech should always be approached with a baseline level of humanity and respect for one another, and based on previous TPUSA event livestreams, this has not been the case.”
The group pursued a nonengagement policy to keep students safe. But TPUSA spokesperson Andrew Kolvet said Thursday that students protesting would be welcome to a debate with Kirk.
“This is an event that is celebrating free speech and a collision of ideas,” Kolvet said. “Campuses tend to be wildly progressive places and one of TPUSA’s missions is to bring out conservative ideas that students don’t often get exposed to but are held by half the country.”
Daviera said she shouldn’t have to debate anyone over “basic human rights.”
Organizers with the UIC Against Hatred coalition said a line could have been drawn, considering UIC is classified as a Minority Serving Institution.
”I feel like this event is slapping those students in the face,” Edwards said. “What does UIC stand for if they allow these despicable people on campus?”
On its website, the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism highlighted several instances that point to “hate speech” from people associated with TPUSA, including co-founder Kirk, who “promotes numerous conspiracy theories about election fraud and COVID-19 and has demonized the transgender community,” as well as offensive remarks about Muslims and immigrants.
On a March 6 episode of The Charlie Kirk Show, which is broadcast on Salem Radio stations across the country, Kirk called transgender people “sick.” That is just one example of his vitriolic remarks against people of the LGBTQ community, said Asha Edwards, a Black 22-year-old senior at UIC who identifies as gender-fluid.
“I’m really concerned because (Kirk and Owens) have very vicious anti-trans rhetoric, which is dehumanizing,” Edwards said. “In a way, it’s calling for, in my opinion, their genocide because they don’t want trans people to exist, or they want to force kids to de-transition.”
Shannon Mastey, a junior studying English literature and professional writing, said UIC should not give people like Owens a platform.
“As a school that sort of touts diversity and equity and supporting the student body, I’m here to speak out against the fact that the school is allowing transphobic people who deny racism and hold all these bigoted views to come in and use our campus resources that we are funding,” Mastey said.
Mastey, who identifies as nonbinary, said Owens’ transphobic statements are “really hurtful.” Owens recently encouraged the GOP to speak out on “transgenderism,” saying “there is no middle ground on transgenderism” and that “if you don’t have the courage to say what needs to be said, we truly don’t need you.”
Kolvet said Kirk’s position on the “national debate around biological men” is that a biological man with male body parts who identifies as female is still a man and that can be harmful in a setting such as female sports.
“TPUSA’s position is that this is harmful. Does that make that position hateful, or does that make TPUSA your ideological opponent?” Kolvet said. “To disagree on ideology is not hateful.”
Daviera said disagreements can become hateful when words “incite violence.” She said, “We have a lot of students that don’t feel safe with this climate and atmosphere.”
Kolvet alleged his organization is often misrepresented by progressives.
“Any allegations or claims from left-wing activists at college campuses or outside groups that Turning Point USA is somehow hateful or is a white supremacist organization or bigoted is 100% categorically untrue and unfair,” Kolvet said Thursday. “To call somebody a white supremacist is a terrible thing to say about anybody and especially to our Black and brown chapter members that go to (UIC) and work in our offices — we have people of all backgrounds.”
Edwards, who keeps a wary eye on the things people like Owens and Kirk promote, said there were several instances where she saw a bigoted stance from Kirk and Owens on certain issues.
Edwards cited a 2021 incident when Kirk stood in front of a majority white audience in Minnesota — not far from where George Floyd was murdered — and called Floyd a “scumbag.”
Owens, former communication director of TPUSA, denied white supremacy is harmful in testimony in front of a U.S. House Oversight Joint Subcommittee hearing in 2019.
“Based on the hierarchy of what’s impacting minority Americans, if I had to make a list of 100 things, white nationalism would not make the list. White supremacy and white nationalism is not a problem that is harming Black America,” Owens said.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, Kirk helped bring hundreds of Donald Trump supporters to a rally in Washington that lead to the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
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Brian Flood, associate director of Public Affairs at UIC, said the TPUSA event was not sponsored by the university.
“The university frequently rents available space on campus to individuals or organizations when requested, as was the case for this specific event,” Flood said. “A UIC rental agreement does not constitute endorsement, sponsorship or support for any particular speaker or organization on campus.”